Assassin's Creed 3 is an enormous, beautifully rendered sandbox game designed to kick sand in your face.
The God Is the Machine
The disregard for free will that plays out between Connor and Haytham proves to be merely a microcosm of the journey that culminates in Assassin's Creed 3, and that has played out in the series' meta-game over several years and in multiple instalments.
In a manner that no other medium could attempt, the Assassin's videogames invited their player to be an inextricable participant in the thematic exploration of control and freedom at the heart of the narrative. You, as player, controlled Desmond, who in turn controls an historical figure (which could change between instalments), with each layer of the fictive onion becoming ever more loaded with irony. The historical figure (Altair; Ezio; Connor; Edward, etc) believes that he has autonomy, but he is ultimately being shepherded by Desmond, who is himself being piloted by the player – themself ultimately subservient to the design of the game, the Animus itself into which you peer.
You're essentially playing as the ultimate turducken of anti-establishment freedom fighters, always within the regimented, pre-rendered playpen that has been walled off for you, and that will only allow you to progress if you perform as it dictates. Kill too many civilians? Well you're out of phase and have to restart. Tried to jump out of the arbitrary boundaries of the landscape? Well you get reloaded back in place. Keep dying and getting thrown back to a checkpoint? Well that's because, according to history, you didn't die there, so you get to restart and do it properly. A civilian NPC is glitching out in the background? Well this is a computer simulation, after all.
In Assassin's Creed 2, this immersion culminated in a thrilling moment of expository dialogue in which Ezio meets Minerva, an ancient alien who had disguised herself as a Roman god, only to have her turn away from him and talk directly to the audience, rupturing the fourth-wall and dragging the player himself into the fiction. In its direct sequel, Brotherhood, there was enormous horror evoked when the Desmond character was possessed by an otherworldly force and forced to kill an ally. No matter what buttons you as player pressed to avoid this fate, the character was inexorably propelled toward the deed. (This moment gets ret-conned in an entirely unsatisfying way in Assassin's Creed 3, when Desmond claims that he could have stopped himself from killing Lucy. Apparently she was a Templar agent and he knew that, even though you didn't and there was no evidence of such a 'twist' at all prior to her death.)
As the series went on, Desmond's present-day journey hinted at some grand role that he was apparently going to play. As an individual with free will, he was going to be pivotal in saving the world at the end of 2012. Whereas once the Assassin's Creed series had been so good at incorporating these videogame conventions into their fiction, using these limitations as colour for the tale and exploring the strange frisson of pre-programmed content and potential player agency, in Assassin's Creed 3 they were forced to make a definitive statement about just how much input the player could ever have on the story, and their answer was dishearteningly grim.
In Assassin's Creed 3, as the textual and metatextual worlds collided with the release of the game in late 2012, the audience's role, at all three levels of the games narrative – Connor, Desmond and Player – is finally revealed to be entirely perfunctory. Connor's entire life story is reduced to a means to finding a key for a locked door. You wrestle your way through 40 hours of side missions and lock picking games and upgrade trees and ship sailing, sit through a Forrest Gump-style greatest hits package in which Connor is inexplicably pivotal to every major moment of American history, all just to watch a guy throw a necklace into a hole (a necklace that looks conspicuously like a computer disc, meta-fans). Then, after waiting for that cut-scene to end, you shift back to Desmond's time period, to passively watch yet another scene play out that entirely undermines any illusion of agency you may have still had.
Back in the 'real world', Desmond, digs up the magic key, opens a mystical door, and in a lengthy exposition dump with two ancient aliens, Minerva and Juno, he is told that humanity is weak, and civilisation is unsalvageable. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hLLDdVgfD0) The aliens opine that all religions and social structures are doomed to corruption because human beings are inexorably self-destructive and need to be controlled, and in a particularly patronising dialogue Minerva dismisses humanity as 'children' who have 'squabbled over [her people's] refuse', incapable of saving themselves or even understanding their place in the universe. (See video at the end of this article.)
But rather than defy this categorisation of humanity as weak-willed followers, Desmond seemingly goes on to prove it true. He is told to kill himself in order to free the despotic alien Juno – an act that has been orchestrated by Juno herself – and bizarrely, Desmond immediately agrees, once again with no choice or input from the player.
The whole series therefore reveals itself to be a build up to a willing, willfully ignorant, suicide. Desmond, surrendering all autonomy, is struck lifeless in a wash of light, with he, the narrative, and the player, all suddenly rendered moot, reduced, like everyone else in the series, to pawns moved at the behest of forces beyond their comprehension.
Juno is released into the world, temporarily preventing some sun-spot related world catastrophe, but free once again to enslave humanity. She laughs, seemingly at both the dead Desmond and the player, and swaggers off stage to scheme her way through the inevitable threatened sequels. Even the epilogue of the Connor story reveals, in a cut scene afterthought, that despite spending the game desperately striving to save his people's land, they simply move away without him anyway.
In a game series that claimed to be celebrating the audacity of liberating oneself from tyranny, Assassin's Creed chose to use the concluding game of its initial trilogy, a game set in the messy chrysalis of the American revolution, to state that 'freedom' is merely the illusion of choice in a state of willing constraint. Again, the ending of the Desmond Miles story, both in narrative and gameplay, seems to be another joke at the expense of the player. Look at you, you big silly, it says. Thinking you were an autonomous individual with an impact on anything of substance.
Assassin's Creed 3 becomes an enormous, beautifully rendered sandbox game designed just to kick sand in your face. In its final moments it shows that the only way in which to 'win' the Assassin's series was to not play at all. Having led its audience on a multi-episode chase – promising revelations, promising autonomy, promising UFOs, it revealed itself to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.
Flying Your Freak Flag
Ironically, it was admitting the ultimate futility of its serialised narrative that would go on to make Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag such an enjoyable game. As a sarcastic, self-serving pirate, the game's protagonist Edward Kenway was completely distinct in its now woefully convoluted mythology, a refreshing blast of impertinence in a franchise bloated with faux gravitas. The plot he was reluctantly drawn into was largely irrelevant and willfully nonsensical (he puts on an assassin's uniform he just found, and so, like something out of Greatest American Hero, he gains magical assassin-vision and can immediately start leaping off cliffs and performing stealth kills), but Kenway's cynicism toward it seemed to mirror the player's own:
'Sure, sure, the spyglass of the ancients that can DNA stamp whatever... Just give me my ship so I can sail the seas and goof around.'
The game's Caribbean open world was immense and beautifully realised; you met some fun characters; could largely explore and distract yourself as you pleased; and the story, such as it was, made little sense (none at all if played with no prior knowledge of the series) and seemingly had no impact on anything.
Even the present-day framing narrative was marked by a wearied, self-mocking tone. Desmond, the fixed point in the overarching tale was gone – literally a dissected corpse lying on a slab somewhere that you could only really learn about if you trawled through endless multimedia Easter eggs. Characters from the previous series appeared only in bit cameos. Now, you were just some faceless quality tester in a cubicle, actually working for the bad guys: a videogame company overtly modelled on Ubisoft itself that was intent on global domination by milking their golden goose franchise to hell.
Black Flag succeeded as a rowdy epilogue because it embraced its pointlessness, but this snarky, self-immolating tone was clearly not one that Ubisoft wanted to foster. The next year's release, Unity, was therefore straight back to pumping out revenge tales and the dread machinations of global cabals intent on enslaving the blah blah blah... Continuing to advertise itself with promises of 'hope' and tides of 'revolution'. But whether or not fans of the franchise are going to follow the series any further down a path that has already been proven fruitless remains to be seen.
Curiously, the series' future success might well depend upon what players thought of one of the few features that Assassin's Creed 3 offered in spite of its pessimistic thematic bait and switch. Connor's home base throughout the game, the Davenport homestead, was actually a little self-contained community that gradually grew and changed over the course of the game. Connor would meet people on his journeys and invite them to live on his land. Over several years, with his (sometimes slightly creepy) assistance, these people would build new houses and buildings, fall in love, get married, start families.
And eventually, the members of this little makeshift community decide to make their own flag – a banner that they believe will better represent them than whatever design is being cooked up by the leaders of the newly minted United States. What they make is a collage, a symbol of community stitched together from scraps. It's a lovely image – emblematic of the resourcefulness and defiance of this little civil enclave amidst the largely uncaring, hypocritical governmental forces amassing beyond their borders. It's also a symbol of the narrative: a makeshift contrivance cobbled together in defiance of the crushing weight of history's, and the franchise's, grim inevitability.
What you make of Assassin's Creed 3 – arguably what you make of the entire series going forward – seems to depend on how willing you are to ignore the game's illusion of independence and instead focus on the little things. If, rather than hoping for a logical narrative through line, or expecting any payoff to the thematic promises of free will overcoming subjugation, you can concentrate instead upon the character beats and vignettes of humanity that play out amidst its oppressive design, there may be something still worth playing.
A UFO that turns out to be an umbrella? Yeah, screw that. A flag made of scraps that just wants to celebrate the mess that is life? Now that's worth chasing.